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In performance: Murail in new Phillips series on composers

Web-only review:

Exploring sound, exploring composers: Murail at the Phillips
by Joan Reinthaler

Tristan Murail is a composer who has spent a career exploring the physical components of sound waves and then using what he has learned to build music around custom-designed sounds. The Argento Chamber Ensemble, since 2000, has been committed to exploring and presenting new Western music. That the ensemble and Murail are ideally matched was apparent from the first notes of their program at the Phillips Collection on Thursday.
(read more after the jump)

Three of Murail's pieces on this program were for one or two instruments only -- a solo flute, a violin and clarinet duo and one for flute and piano. They develop slowly -- a long-held sound followed by an ornamental eruption made up of that sound's harmonics -- an introspective exploration of pitch distortion and different timbre possibilities, flutter-tonguing, humming into the clarinet and others too exotic to identify. Sounds emerge with a delicacy that appeals to subtle emotions rather than to the intellect. With rare exceptions, they are not constrained by any sense of a rhythmic beat. Music by Michel Galante (the Argento's founder and conductor), Giacinto Scelsi and Allain Gaussin, also on the program, shared this same approach to composition.

Which leads to the question -- how successful is the exploration of the guts of sound as an organizing principle of music? From the music on this program, the answer would seem to be -- it depends. Shorter pieces in the five-minute range -- Murail's "Unanswered Questions" for flute, and "Feuilles á Travers les Cloches" for flute, violin, cello and piano -- created, and most importantly maintained, captivating soundscapes. But his longer "Le Fou á Pattes Bleues" for flute and piano and the concluding "La Barque Mystique" for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano seemed to meander after a while, as the lack of direction made it harder and harder for the music to define itself. Fuller program notes (the ones supplied offered only two- or three-word descriptions such as "atmospheric" or "sad") would have helped.

The performances were outstanding, with most of the heavy work turned in by flutist Erin Lesser and clarinetist Carol McGonnell. This was the first concert in a new "Leading European Composers" series the Phillips has inaugurated (with two more scheduled for Thursdays in March and May) and a near-capacity audience augurs well for its success.

-- Joan Reinthaler

By Anne Midgette  |  November 15, 2009; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Comments

Thank you for the excellent review. I missed this concert, but from the review still would like to commend the European Union, the Phillips Collection, and the French cultural attache Roland Celette for organizing this highly promising series of contemporary classical music portrait concerts at the very convenient and beautiful downtown museum location.

Posted by: snaketime | November 15, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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